The iconic gardens of Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Bressingham, and Beth Chatto’s were on my recent UK garden tour this July.
Along with many other gardens that deserve more attention and recognition, I returned home with a renewed appreciation for the diversity and passion for gardening that is encountered only in the UK. Gardening is an obsession with the Brits and since I share that obsession, I can relate to the culture and the importance that they place on this “hobby”.
Not only is gardening a great practical past-time, but an entire nation engages in the leisure activity of visiting gardens enrolled in the National Garden Scheme. Begun with the aim of “opening gardens of quality, character and interest to the public for charity”, the National Garden Scheme has raised over 50 million British Pounds since it began in 1927, and over a half million visits occur each year in more than 3700 gardens open to the public. Garden visiting on that scale is totally unheard of in the rest of the world.
People in England love to visit other people’s gardens to gather ideas and perhaps with hopes of adding their own gardens to the National Garden Scheme rolls, and it includes small town gardens as well as more urban gardens.
But why does Britain have this obsession? Probably climate plays a large role in the answer to the question. The closest comparison of UK weather to US weather would be the Pacific Northwest. If you have ever traveled to that area of the country you will see extraordinary gardens and plants that you can only dream about growing in other parts of the US. The hardiness zones determine your frost free days to garden and the Pacific Northwest is a temperate zone 8 and zone 9. For comparison, here in Maryland, I am a 6b which means that I get much more extremes in weather. Plants don’t like extremes; the more moderate temperatures encourages a wider range of different plants to grow. The hardiness zones in the UK run the gamut of 6 in northern Scotland, to the rest of England with the majority in the 8 and 9 zones. The UK enjoys a temperate maritime climate characterized by cool winters and warm summers, which sounds similar to Seattle. Go to Hardiness Zones in the United Kingdom to see a map and explanation of their zones.
So, mild climate, regular rainfall, and a very long growing season. It is no surprise that England has fantastic gardens. When I take visitors to gardens in England, they are often surprised when they see flowers that are blooming together, like a Lenten Rose and a tea rose blooming side by side. At home this would not be possible, especially in my unforgiving mid-Atlantic climate. Or you will see palm trees or other tropicals that stay outside all year. Tree echium (Echium pininana) , a native of the Canary Islands, is a plant that can naturalize in southern California, and you see it planted extensively in southern England. An exotic that will merit lots of admiring comments, this is a favorite plant of many English gardens.
Plant Hunters Started It All
To add to this climate bonanza, many historic plant hunters calling England their home, departed the shores to bring home numerous offerings, especially during the Victorian era. Bringing together all the world’s plants and see them bloom together is often startling to visitors but you can trace this directly back to those first adventurous plant hunters. Starting at Kew Gardens, then disseminated to the ruling class, these exotics were propagated and descended the social scale until they reached the smallest village as cuttings. You can see the results in the gardens across the United Kingdom today.
Gardening On TV
I gave up long ago looking for gardening on HGTV. But in the UK, gardening shows run constantly with every subject under the sun discussed. Planting seed potatoes? Yes there will be several shows on that in the spring getting you up to speed. And on the subject of potatoes, the English are mad about growing and eating potatoes. It is one crop that I viewed everywhere outside my coach window zipping by. And it is the main crop that the English grow on their “allotments” which is simply a large plot of ground that they grow all types of “veg”.
Obsessive Gardening & Flower Shows
So, gardening is a total obsession for natives of the UK and they have good reason to be with the forgiving climate. And gardening off-shoots also thrive with flower fetes, flower shows, and events like the Snowdrop Sensation Plant Fair in February or the Christmas Floral Extravaganza in December.
Flower shows are a celebration of the pinnacle of gardening achievement and draws in hordes visitors every year, with everyone flocking to Chelsea or Hampton Court to admire perfect examples of pretty much every type of flower.
Bringing tour groups of like minded gardeners to the UK each year has become a ritual as I like to take part in the enthusiasm and passion that residents have for such a rewarding hobby. I find that American gardeners can be just as passionate about gardening but it isn’t as ingrained like it is in England.
Status Vs Oasis
One big difference between English and American gardens is how the American perceives the garden as a status symbol and the English native sees the garden more as an enjoyable oasis to putter around in. The Americans do love the lawn with vast expanses devoted to it. Having English roots, the lawn is really not as significant in any other culture. Mown grass dominates any American “yard” or public space currently, but I see meadows creeping in taking the place of grass. But in England, meadows are everywhere, even in graveyards!
Another difference is that Americans call it their “yard” which has negative connotations and not a “garden” like the British. The British are all about the love of gardening and being horticulturalists. Americans are more about “curb appeal” and how their yard will appear to the neighbors. So, you could say that the Brits express themselves through how they decorate their garden with plants and structures, which is connected to their home, but Americans are more into the low maintenance and the utilitarian aspect of gardening and showing it off. They just want it to look good outside and retreat into their homes. As a landscape designer in the business, I can attest that most people do exactly that.
Garden centers are another good example of the difference between the US and the UK. Nurseries in the UK are destination trips that include several on -site restaurants, clothing, child care, and other amenities, But in the US the nursery is more about buying plants and gardening tools and then moving on. I see that changing gradually with some great garden centers that have popped up in recent years in the US. Check out Escape to Surreybrooke .
Societies & Organizations
Trends-Stumperies, Meadows, and Naturalistic Plantings
A whimsical, but practical garden feature unique to England are stumperies. An intentional arrangement of woody plant material left over after removing stumps and large limbs or any re-purposed wood, these structures can make interesting decorations in a garden. Creating a habitat for mostly shade loving plants like ferns, a stumpery is only something I encounter while in England. Displaying interesting architecture of roots and trunks, the vertical use of space creates perfect pockets for plants to thrive in microclimates. An ingenious use of stumps that would otherwise be trashed, stumperies can be awesome structures.
Stumperies, first created in 1856, are enjoying a resurgence in popularity and there are stumperies everywhere in England. I expect soon to see one here in the US. The trends in gardening are about 5-10 years behind here.
Meadows and naturalistic plantings are in vogue in England and I saw them everywhere, especially at the Hampton Court Flower Show. Queen Anne’s lace, which Americans consider a weed, was planted in naturalistic plantings and there was even a lovely pink variety.
A North American native to the western US, Penstemons were probably my top flower that I saw this past July. UK gardeners have taken this US native and made it their own with new cultivars that I was salivating over and cannot find here, like ‘Laura’, a white with an edging of pink. And don’t get me started on Delphiniums! They are just over the top!
For my next garden tours, I will be traveling to Portugal and Madeira in March 2020 and Ireland in September 2020. Go to my trip tab to see the itinerary for Portugal/Madeira. Ireland is being made up right now and I should have it available soon.
For more posts on my trips, go to Chelsea Flower Show: The King of Flower Exhibitions and Garden Trip-Chelsea and Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds.